First Step: Experience a traumatic event in which you feel you have no control.
When I turned thirty, my world shrunk drastically. I took a road trip with my three year old from North Florida to the Appalachian Mountains in my 15 year old crappy Toyota van to visit another single-mom friend. We never made it to the mountains. Instead, the van’s electrical system failed on a deserted state road in the pitch black of night at 11 pm. This was before the days of affordable smart phones and GPS, so I had no idea exactly where I was. I had planned to go camping in the mountains, so the van was packed full with coolers of food, futon mattress, tent, etc. My three year old was scared; I was scared. I had only a few hundred dollars in my wallet and no money in my bank account. I was a struggling single mom and nursing student with two jobs. This was supposed to be a vacation for my daughter and I and it was all that we could afford at the time. So we ended up having the van towed to the nearest city around: Charleston, South Carolina. We spent a week in a motel there, cooking outside on my camp stove, while waiting for the mechanic shop to repair my van. I called my parents in Florida and asked to borrow money to pay for the repairs and finance our trip home.
Once we returned home, I eventually secured an old Hyundai two-door sedan with failing brakes, I began to notice that anytime I took highways or the interstate around my town, that I started to breathe a little faster, my peripheral vision darkened, and I would experience a light-headed sensation that I’d never had before. I began to worry that there was something wrong with my body, and for a single mom with no health insurance, this was extraordinarily frightening.
Second Step: Adapt your life to fit the problem.
Rather than face the issue, however, I simply adapted my driving routes to fit my psyche, avoiding large intersections, highways, and the interstate. When I needed to go out of town for fun or for nursing school clinical rotation, I asked another nursing student or family member to drive me. This adaptation worked nicely over the next five years, until shortly after graduation when I was offered a fantastic and well-paying job in a state 2000 miles from home.
With the help of my family, I packed up my household and moved my daughter and I to the Southwest to embark on a new adventure. My mother rented a car and drove my eight-year old daughter and I the 2000 miles to our new destination and helped us settle in for a week before she returned to Florida. As I looked around my new surroundings, I was suddenly panic-stricken: how was I going to drive in this large metropolis of over a million people? The new city had two interstates passing right through the middle of it and most roads were at least four lanes, if not six. I was now terrified of the choice I’d made.
I realized that I had to drive outside of my preferred comfort zone to survive in my new town, so I forced myself to navigate the main roads of the city, pulling off of the road every few minutes when my vision was too blurry, my heart rate too fast, my breathing too rapid, and my palms too sweaty to stay in my lane. My young daughter, confused by all the stops, complained and asked when we were going to get to the ice skating rink/pizza place/grocery store/etc.
As I had done in my hometown, I quickly learned to adapt my life to the parameters of my anxiety. I mapped out routes on Google to the closest grocery store, doctor’s office, pharmacy, etc. and limited my entertainment to nearby venues. Luckily, both my daughter’s elementary school and my workplace were located within a couple of miles from our home. Additionally, we were able to walk to restaurants, health food store, local shops, and to rely on public transportation when traveling to places further away in the city, like the zoo.
Each time I did need to drive someplace outside of my comfort zone, I went over the route repeatedly in my head for hours, and sometimes even several days, before the event. I always made sure that I had extra time to travel, as odds were likely that I would need to pull over at least once during the journey due to having a panic attack. I was able to function this way for eight years, minimizing my panic attacks and meeting the basic needs of my daughter and me. This all changed, however, after I married and became pregnant with my second daughter.
In my first trimester of pregnancy, I suddenly started having trouble driving the quarter mile to the grocery store without having a severe anxiety attack. Driving out of my neighborhood brought on intense feelings of panic. I lost all peripheral vision, my heart beat so fast I felt like I was going to have a heart attack, I began to hyperventilate, I felt like I was floating out of my body and as if I no longer had control over the car, I could feel myself drifting into the other lanes and was convinced that I was going to crash into an on-coming vehicle. My palms sweated profusely, making it difficult to grip the wheel, which further intensified my sense of panic.
To combat this, I rolled down the window, cranked up the air conditioner, blasted music, drank water, and told myself it wasn’t real, but to no avail. Ultimately, I ended up pulling off the road waiting for the panic to subside. Sometimes I waited for forty-five minutes for my heart rate and breathing to return to normal and for me to work up the courage to start driving again.
The situation got even worse after my second daughter was born. I began to rely on my husband to drive me everywhere and I stopped going out with my friends as often. I became extremely embarrassed about my panic attacks and lack of control over my anxiety. I didn’t want to tell my friends that I was not able to drive to the events they invited me to, and I didn’t like always asking my husband to haul me everywhere all the time. My solution was to become very reclusive. I rarely left the house, except to take walks in my neighborhood; I declined invitations, blaming it on my newborn child. I also was not able to ride on the interstate as a passenger anymore without putting my head between my knees or I would have a panic attack.
Third Step: Attempt to recover.
At home with a baby all day and no social outlets, I became depressed. My husband, worried about me, made an appointment with a therapist who specialized in eye movement and desensitization reprocessing (EMDR). After two sessions with the EMDR therapist, I felt more confident and began driving short distances again. I was able to go to the grocery store, the park, and the coffee shop without panic attacks. I was elated! However, as months wore on, slowly I felt the fingers of anxiety choking my mental balance and one sunny afternoon on my way to the grocery store with my infant and preteen daughters, I suffered another driving anxiety event. It scared me so much that I called my husband away from his job to meet us in the parking lot of the store and drive us home. I felt like a failure. I was too afraid to drive anymore and too embarrassed to reach out for help again. Once more, I became a prisoner of my own mind, cloistered in the safe haven of my home. My friends stopped inviting me to events over time and I felt even more isolated. My oldest daughter had to rely on my husband and other friends’ parents to drive her around to her numerous middle school activities. The sense of shame I had about this continued to grow, as I felt that I was not longer a whole person, capable of meeting my children’s needs. My husband was now tasked with taking me to and from my new job, carting the children to all doctors’ appointments, running errands, etc. My anxiety was placing a huge strain on our marriage. Simultaneously, I felt intense guilt and resentment that I had to rely on him to meet all of our needs.
I was convinced that nothing would help me, so I continued to muddle through each day without hope of change. This shifted drastically for me one day, however, while sitting in a mandatory training at my new job. I was in the front row, listening to the instructor describe the goals and objectives of the class when I was overcome with a rush of dizziness and a certainty that I was going to fall out of my chair and pass out on the floor. It took all of my concentration to calm the buzzing sensation in my head and focus my eyes on the instructor until the next fifteen minute break. I did not retain anything the speaker told us and was certain that I was not going to pass the class (thus losing my job). As soon as I had a break, I called my primary care physician (PCP) and made an appointment to discuss medication.
The PCP placed me on Zoloft, which helped calm my mind during work hours, but did not help me with driving at all. I was still having panic attacks while driving but at least I was able to make it through my work day again and focus on my job. The PCP increased the dose of Zoloft, in the hopes that it would help with my driving anxiety too. Instead, it induced different panic attack symptoms: I began to have chest pains and shortness of breath. A medical workup was ordered and deduced that I was not having a heart attack – just experiencing panic in a new and different way. After a year of trial and error with various medications, I was quite frustrated with the medication route and weaned myself off of them completely.
My next attempt at handling the anxiety was homeopathy. I went to a homeopathic physician, recommended to me by a friend. After an appointment that was several hours long, in which I gave a thorough family health history and detailed account of my struggle with driving anxiety over the past decade, I was given a little brown glass bottle of small white pellets to dissolve under my tongue three times a day. Dutifully, I took them as suggested, and after two weeks I attempted a solo driving trip to my job, which was less than two miles from my home. As I pressed down on the gas pedal to keep up with the forty-five mile per hour traffic, I felt my face become flushed, my heart beat faster, my breathing increase, my palms sweat, and my vision begin to blur; another panic attack was in full swing.
With three failed therapies behind me, I decided to try psychotherapy. I began sessions with a very skilled therapist that was recommended to me by a family member. After several months of treatment, and very little progress, we mutually decided to take a break from therapy. I was at a complete loss now.
Exercise and diet:
Finally, I decided to commit to regular cardiovascular exercise and dietary changes. I began reducing my caffeine intake, eliminating refined sugar, and eating smaller meals more frequently throughout the day to balance my blood sugar. Of all the therapies I have tried, this is the only combination that has produced had the best results. After a month of consistent exercise and a healthy diet, I was able to drive five to ten miles from my home without experiencing a panic attack. I was also able to ride on the interstate as a passenger in a car without having a panic attack.
Fourth Step: Accept where you are now.
Where I am today:
I still have anxiety daily and I do experience the beginnings of panic attacks while driving, but now I am able to manage them and continue on my journey. I’ve learned to keep high protein/low sugar foods available in the car, like almonds, and to not drive on an empty stomach. Limiting my caffeine intake to one cup of coffee in the morning has helped keep my heart rate in a healthy range, as well as exercising for at least thirty minutes a day. I am slowly reestablishing contact with my friends and getting out of the house for social events. I still plan out my driving routes before I leave my home and occasionally I have to call my husband to talk me through an anxious event, but I do not have to pull off the road and wait it out anymore. I have a long way to go before I am able to drive with confidence across town, and I am not certain that I will ever be able to do that again. I have found when I tell people what I am experiencing, contrary to my fears, they are overwhelmingly sympathetic, and that I am the only one stigmatizing myself. I am trying to forgive myself for not being the anxiety-free person I once was, to deal with the feelings I have now, and to accept that I have an anxiety disorder.